Everyone's been there. You go through a breakup and all you want to do is lie on your couch in pajamas listening to melancholic, soul-shattering music. Now, a new study attempts to explain just why you'd engage in such seemingly self-destructive behavior: Sad music may not actually make you feel very sad at all.
Researchers from Freie Universität Berlin surveyed 772 participants from around the globe to find out why people seek out sad music, particularly during breakups. Of the 470 participants who gave specific instances of when sad music is appealing, 108 reported lost relationships. The second most popular instance, according to 54 participants, was after suffering a loss of a loved one.
The researchers found that after switching on that Cat Power, Hank Williams or Billie Holiday song*, you experience four different cognitive rewards of music-evoked sadness: the reward of imagination, emotion regulation, empathy and no "real-life" implications.
What that means in layman's terms is that you get pleasure from connecting with the music and letting your imagination run with the spontaneity of the melody; you regulate and vent your emotions after identifying with the song; you empathize with the musician and feel less alone; and at the end of the day, that empathetic sadness you're feeling with the music isn't real -- through the music, you can appreciate the negative emotions conveyed by the artists without actually having to experience the "real life" consequences of their sadness.
When participants were asked to give an example of a sad song they turn to, the most common ones were Johnny Cash's Nine Inch Nails cover "Hurt" and Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
Johnny Cash's Nine Inch Nails cover "Hurt" was the most popular pop song participants listened to when they were sad.
Liila Taruffi, a research assistant at Freie Universität Berlin and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post that sadness wasn't even the most common emotion evoked by sad music. Rather, this type of music caused listeners to mull over past events, like the rosier periods of a romantic relationship.
"The most frequent emotion evoked was nostalgia, which is a bittersweet emotion -- it's more complex and it's partly positive," Taruffi said. "This helps explain why sad music is appealing and pleasurable for people."
While the emotional experiences of listeners are clearly complex and multi-faceted, she said that, in most cases, if people listen to sad music during a breakup, they may actually feel better. Participants in the study even reported liking sad music more when they were glum or lonely -- which makes sense, if listeners are reaping all of these cognitive benefits when their emotions match the ethos of the music.
The researchers found that there were similar benefits when a happy person listened to happy music, but the effects were marginal in comparison to the sad music experience.
Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" was the most popular instrumental song participants listened to when they were sad.
Taruffi said that her findings shed light on a paradox that's been researched since the time of the ancient Greeks. Aristotle himself grappled with why people were so interested in experiencing the negative emotions evoked by tragedy and drama, and his guess certainly paved the way for Taruffi's research: Through catharsis, he said, people can purge negative emotions.
But Taruffi warned that her findings aren't necessarily true for everyone -- in some cases, people may use sad music in a maladaptive way by reinforcing too much negativity. It's tricky to gauge, but she said to try to make sure you check in with yourself before you listen to your go-to dismal song on repeat after a breakup.
*These are just some suggestions based on this writer's opinions. You can switch these out with whatever musician makes you feel sad.